By Tim Whyte
“Transparency” is a word government officials throw around a lot, as if merely saying it means one is practicing it.
In practice, though, its application varies — often based on a government agency’s own perception of the importance of keeping something under wraps, or even controlling the timing of the release of public information.
Since I returned to The Signal in June, we’ve run into several instances of public agency decision-making in which “transparency” is not as aggressively practiced as it is preached.
The latest example comes courtesy of the Saugus Union School District.
A week ago, we editorialized about this issue: On Oct. 26, an attorney representing the Saugus Teachers Association sent the SUSD a “cease and desist” letter — please stand by for a description of its contents.
On Oct. 30, the SUSD board held a closed session discussion regarding the district’s “significant exposure to litigation.”
One of our reporters heard about the letter, and through the grapevine we heard that the letter alleged there had been politically motivated misconduct toward a district employee by SUSD board President Chris Trunkey, who happened to be up for re-election on Nov. 6.
On Nov. 1, The Signal made a request under the California Public Records Act, asking that the letter be released so we could properly see its contents before writing about it.
The district did not dispute whether the letter constitutes a public record — it clearly is a public record.
However, the district, citing “protocols,” told us the letter would not be available until Nov. 9 — three days after the election.
We asked for a reason that the public record was being suppressed until after the election, and we were not given one.
The day after the election, they released the letter. It was two days earlier than promised, but still too late for voters to weigh whether it contained information they should consider before casting their votes.
One local resident, Brenda Piccirillo, addressed the SUSD board in this past week’s board meeting, asking the same question we asked: Why wasn’t the letter released before the election?
They gave her the same basic non-answer they gave us, which essentially amounts to: The law allows up to 10 days for a public record to be released, and we have “protocols” we follow, and we’re not going to give you any more details because we don’t have to, so tough noogies.
Tough noogies indeed.
Here’s what was in the letter: The STA letter alleges that, after the teachers association endorsed Trunkey’s opponent Sharlene Duzick in the Nov. 6 election, Trunkey began contacting community members “looking for ‘dirt’ on (STA President Deborah) Rocha as a way of discrediting STA in retaliation for its endorsement of Ms. Duzick.”
The letter added: “Ms. Rocha also learned that President Trunkey has contacted agents of Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District, where Ms. Rocha served as president of the AADUSD board of education eight years ago, to ask about Ms. Rocha’s involvement in a decision involving the controversial Albert Einstein Charter School.”
The letter alleges that, in their handling of the situation, the school board violated the Educational Employment Relations Act and Trunkey violated the board’s Governance Standards and Code of Conduct.
You can read the whole letter online, here: bit.ly/2DtycAb.
So here’s what we have:
The SUSD was in receipt of a three-page letter from its teachers association, alleging that a board member who was running for re-election had sought to retaliate against a district employee for political reasons. That letter was withheld from public view, conveniently until the election was over.
I don’t know Trunkey. I don’t know Rocha. But I know the SUSD did not practice “transparency” in a timely manner, even if the Public Records Act allows 10 days to release a three-page letter that is clearly a public record.
Let’s play a little game called “If, Then…”
IF… Chris Trunkey sought to target and discredit a school district employee because the STA endorsed Trunkey’s political opponent…
AND IF… School district officials, either elected or appointed, colluded with Mr. Trunkey or anyone else to keep that letter from public view until after the election — thus, potentially influencing the outcome of an election that, if the current 200-vote margin holds after late absentee and provisional vote counts are finalized, Trunkey will have won by a narrow margin…
THEN… Resignations of all parties involved, both elected and appointed, should be forthcoming.
This is not a matter to be taken lightly, and so far we have a lot more questions than answers.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays.